Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Evelyn Waugh - Black Mischief (1932)

This isn't the first Waugh I've read, but I was drawn to it not for the author as such, but from an interest in the history of Ethiopia. Of the two works I've previously read, I very much enjoyed The Loved One, with its macabre humour, but I wasn't such a fan of Decline and Fall - and though I haven't read Vile Bodies I've seen the film based on it, Bright Young Things, and though the twenties ambience was fantastic, the moral message, that sensual enjoyment leads to downfall, was unpalatable. Although I'm very much a fan of work dealing with the dark side of the human condition, I've found the underlying bleak anti-humanism of Waugh's work difficult (and this novel was no exception). So I approached the work with both interest and trepidation.

Waugh was a correspondent in Ethiopia, known at the time as Abyssinia (I've yet to read Waugh In Abyssinia or Scoop which also draw on and deal with his experiences there) and, I tracked down this novel after hearing that it was closely based on Ethiopian history. Anyone familiar with that history, though, will find that it's not a close fit, though there are a few resemblances - and Waugh himself claims as much in his foreword (written in 1962, thirty years after the novel itself was published). The plot takes place in the fictional island kingdom of Azania, off the coast of northern Africa, with the ascent to the throne of the modernizing but hopelessly naive Seth, and follows the machinations of the island's inhabitants, particularly the consular officials and court, around the shifting balance of power.

Neither Westerners nor Africans are spared Waugh's caustic satire, but the racism in this book is palpable. In his foreword, Waugh writes that 'thirty years ago it seemed an anachronism that any part of Africa should be independent of European administration. History has not followed what then seemed its natural course'. Seth himself is a figure demonstrating the ridiculousness of Westernised Africans attempting to ape Western ways, and other stereotypes, such as the oily, untrustworthy Armenian who'll sell his wife for a profit, are not lacking. The casual racism of the characters, though also at times making for unpleasant reading, is, however, realistic, I'd say. At the same time, the exploitation of the colonised, and failure to comprehend the suffering of others, on the part of the colonisers is very much in evidence.

Having made the above criticisms, however, I enjoyed the novel, certainly more than Decline and Fall - a contemporary satirical perspective on colonialism in Africa, written by someone with experience of the subject, is fascinating in itself, giving the work a great deal of interest as an historical document, and the black satire is very well done, working nicely in Waugh's spare style. The plot itself is compelling, and anyone who goes gaga over Anglophilic period pieces and comedies of manners, a category in which I very much include myself, will find it a treat on that basis. In sum, a problematic but definitely rewarding novel.

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